Mysticism and Theosophy in the Service of the Regime: Azharite Scholars and the Challenges to Religion-State Relations under Mubarak

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Challenged by Salafi Islam, Sufism managed to reassert itself in Egypt by acquiring new roles in society while emphasizing commitment to the Sharia. This article explores the role played by the religious organs of the state in promoting Sufism under President Hosni Mubarak, in the context of growing challenges to religion-state relations during this period. Focusing on the thought of 'Alī Jum' a, the Grand Mufti of Egypt (2003-2013), and the current Shaykh al-Azhar Ahmad Muhammad Ahmad al-Tayyib, it also assesses the contribution of popular preachers, many of whom were graduates of al-Azhar, to this mystical discourse. The study aims to demonstrate that these popular preachers shared with the Azharite scholar some form of identification with theoretical mysticism, reflecting a broad inclination towards Sufism within Egyptian society. The Shaykh al-Azhar and the Grand Mufti sought to prove the compatibility between spirituality with its esoteric and introspective basis and Islamic law with its more worldly and structured dimension, by incorporating a theosophical debate within an apologetic exchange with Western thought. While this encounter with mysticism did not represent a new phenomenon, the novelty was in its political direction, in which a Sufi-oriented worldview became a tool to strengthen the regime's position in its struggle against Islamist movements. The regime's growing dependence on its religious institutions to counter the challenge of political Islam enhanced the bargaining-position of al-Azhar and Dār al-Iftā', providing them leverage to advance the path of Islam and mitigate the regime's secular orientation. While many popular preachers backed moderate Islamism, the religious officials of al-Azhar and Dār al-Iftā' relied on mysticism to support a highly supervised state-sponsored Islam. The reliance on the spiritual path to support diverse political trends demonstrates the all-encompassing and dynamic nature of theoretical mysticism as it was infused with rationalism, new knowledge, politics and a Sharia-based worldview.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-73
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Sufi Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2022


  • Egypt
  • Muslim Brotherhood
  • Salafi
  • Sharia
  • Sufi
  • al-Azhar


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